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Merle Henegan's Ministry
The "Mother Teresa" of the South African Gold Fields
By Karen Stiller
This is the story of Merle Henegan of South Africa.
There is a river in South Africa called the Orange, which winds its way from the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean cutting through the Free State. Within the Free State, known as one of the most beautiful areas of South Africa and a hot spot for tourists from around the world, are people imprisoned by severe poverty and barely surviving in squatter camps.
There is one woman who is like a river of life to them. She is known affectionately and more than a little reverently, as “The Mother Teresa of the Goldfields,” or “Ma-Mosa, Mother of Mercy.” Merle Henegan has devoted the last 13 years of her life to ministering to the people she calls “the poorest of the poor.”
It was a dream that started Merle’s odyssey. “God spoke to me and said ‘pick up your cross and follow me and feed my people. I will lead you and show you the way’”
God showed Merle the way to squatter camps where the unemployed from the surrounding homelands converged when racial restrictions on where people can live and work in South Africa were lifted. “What I saw in these camps horrified and touched me,” says Merle.
People desperate to provide for their families often seek work in urban areas. The city of Orange Free State Goldfields, where Merle has set up her ministry, is one of the hardest hit by the forces of urbanization. The squatter camps are horrible places to live. “They live in shacks,” says Merle. “Up to 10 people live in one room, no bathroom, no toilets. The woman walk miles to fetch water. Most people have no jobs.”
The hard life of the squatter camps is lived out among an escalating HIV/AIDS rate, described as one of the most severe in the world. UNAIDS reports that by the end of 2005, there were five and a half million people living with HIV in South Africa, and estimates almost 1,000 AIDS deaths occur every day. “I deal with the many victims of the AIDS virus, which is killing so many women, men and small children, many are also orphans, they are left behind. I pick up the dying and take them to hospital to die with dignity, and with the love of God.”
Merle shares the love of God in intensely practical ways, by creating and running three daycare centers so parents are not forced to leave their young children alone during the day, while they try to find work. Her centres care for and feed 300 children and she estimates she feeds an additional 500 children daily. She has created a work project that employs 10 people to make bricks and then sells them to construction companies.
Merle travels through the squatter camps visiting the people she cares for.
She has story after story of desperate conditions. “One day, I arrived to find an old grandfather very ill. He was in terrible condition, he had no control over his bladder, and he was lying in his shack. Something had to be done. He could not help himself. His grandchild is 12, an orphan from AIDS, and in a wheelchair.” Merle called an ambulance for the grandfather and took 12-year old Tabeso to the donated house that is now a care center for children. “I bathed this poor little chap. My heart was crying out. Nobody wanted this little boy. To them, he was too much of a hand-full, too much of a problem. An outcast. My heart was crying out to the Lord.”
Merle entrusted her new young friend to the woman who runs the house for her, and recently went back to visit. She found a happy little boy. His grandfather is still in the hospital.
“I have to be strong with cases like these,” says Merle. “God’s love and His grace, will pull me though, and prayer.” Merle’s faith is built daily as she sees the inner strength of the people who live in the squatter camps. “They have so much strength. It never fails them.” Every week, Merle gathers with the faithful and they pray together for two hours or more. “I see Jesus in all these people, He is holding their hands.”
Merle carries out her ministry with only one sponsor helping her cover costs. “You have to love until it hurts,” says Merle. “You have to have faith in our Lord. The Body of Christ has many parts, and we all have a part to play, to build up, and to help in every way.”
Merle Henegan has a faith that flows like a river, bringing life and love through the squatter camps of the Orange Free State in South Africa.
We, the staff of Thoughts About God, encourage you to pray for Merle--that God will always supply her needs for the Mimosa Ministry. If you would like to help her, please send us your comment and we will forward it to her. Thank you!